Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

International commission upholds Onondaga Nation land claim case

 A man sits on a bench with trees and an empty harbor in the background.
Scott Willis
Onondaga Nation general counsel Joe Heath returns messages after an interview at the Inner Harbor near Onondaga Lake, which the Onondaga Nation considers sacred. July 7, 2023.

A human rights commission has upheld the Onondaga Nation’s right to pursue claims for the unjust taking of its lands centuries ago.  It’s considered a victory in the long-running battle seeking justice for broken treaties.

Onondaga Nation General Counsel Joe Heath first filed the land rights case in 2005. It was summarily dismissed by federal courts, so that left him no option but to file with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“This petition was filed charging the United States with human rights violations for illegally taking the land, for allowing the environmental destruction of the land, and for having a court system that gives absolutely no remedy for treaty violations.”

Heath says the commission’s ruling acknowledges the claim that New York State violated treaties and illegally seized 2.5 million acres from the Onondaga Nation without approval from the US Congress. He says the U.S. court system has been equally complicit for 200 years.

“The United States claims that they can abrogate any treaty or any aspect of any treaty at will, that's clearly a violation of international law, Heath said. "We hope that these principles get struck down and then we can move forward to a more enlightened, progressive stage where we can begin to deal with the horrible treatment of indigenous people for the last 500 years.”

Unfortunately, Heath says the U.S. doesn’t accept the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and won’t subject itself to its rulings. He hopes that will change.

“This will be as much a moral victory as a legal victory. Certainly when the United States is labeled a human rights violator, we hope that that would have some effect and that they might think about responding more in compliance with international law.”

He says from the beginning, the Onondaga have called for healing and a recognition of history.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at